Alex and I have now been parents to Isobel for two months.
Isobel is our first baby, so it’s difficult to compare having a baby during coronavirus to other times. But it does seem like a strange time to have a baby. There are many disadvantages to the current situation. But there are also some interesting advantages, particularly for me as a father.
The biggest lockdown-related difficulty has been not being able to be in hospital with Izzy and Alex while Alex recovered from her C-section. I expected it to be a strange feeling to be a new father alone at home, and it certainly was. I was deprived of sleep, and deprived of time with my new family.
It was two and a half days until they could come home. Despite the fact they were not home, those were still perhaps the busiest and most hectic days of my life. Izzy arrived two and a half weeks earlier than expected, which meant we were slightly under-prepared. It was my job to frantically get everything in our home prepared for a newborn baby to live in it.
I tidied Isobel’s room, which we had decorated a few months previously.
I attached the next-to-me crib to our bed.
I prepared the moses basket.
And I created a suitably welcoming sign.
That was just the beginning of a whirlwind that I guess won’t stop for 18 years. To top things off, we had to prepare for Christmas amid the shifting sands of the lockdown rules. Izzy’s early arrival caught us on the hop, so our Christmas planning was slotted in to the short spaces of time between nappy changes and feeds.
We were also totally overwhelmed by the number of gifts that people sent for Isobel. Our mantelpiece didn’t have nearly enough space for all the cards — both birthday and Christmas — that arrived in the weeks following Izzy’s birth.
As I described in my post about her birth, Isobel is — generally — amazingly peaceful. But feeding her has been a distressing struggle, and this has been by far our biggest challenge.
At first, Isobel didn’t understand how to breastfeed. It transpired that she didn’t even know how to suck (apparently this is an early baby thing). This meant that bottle feeding didn’t work either. So for the first few days, we had to syringe feed her and cup feed her.
Cup feeding is totally extraordinary. It’s incredible to see that if a baby can’t suck, they can still lap milk up from a cup. It is a very messy technique, but it was the only way of getting food inside her for the first few days.
Feeding remains the biggest challenge. She has never seemed to enjoy eating, and struggles with her suck–swallow–breathe co-ordination. Seemingly this is all a function of her small size, and partially attributed to her slightly early arrival.
Izzy was not technically premature, which means that healthcare professionals end up using words like “immature” instead. But because she’s treated by default as a full term baby, in reality this has meant that in some cases we’ve had to work harder to get the attention needed.
After a few days she began to figure out how to suck. So we’ve been able to bottle feed her a mixture expressed breast milk and formula milk.
This is seriously hard work for Alex, who has to pump six to eight times per day to maximise her milk production.
We persevered with breastfeeding. But aside from a few very brief successes, it has been more traumatic than it’s worth. Izzy only knows how to scream into boobs, not feed from them.
Luckily, Alex is able to express lots of breastmilk, meaning we are able to supply her almost as much as she needs in a day. We now very rarely have to top up with formula.
We’ve made huge progress since those early days where getting anything into her at all was a challenge. But it remains a messy affair. Suck–swallow–breathe still isn’t working properly, and to top things off she has reflux.
It feels like she is conflicted about eating. She knows to ask for food, but often finds the actual consumption of it an anxious affair.
As a result of the feeding challenges, Izzy lost a lot of weight after her birth. This has meant we have got a bit more attention.
Being seen by so many healthcare professionals is a mixed blessing. Getting more people to have an opinion means being given more different opinions, and the advice from different professionals has often been conflicting. On the plus side, everyone tells us that Izzy is healthy, just small. Growth is expected to improve things, but that has been a catch 22 situation.
Her weight situation has since stabilised. She is about as small as they come, and gains weight slowly. But she does gain weight.
This is all a huge surprise. We never expected to have a small baby. During Alex’s pregnancy, every growth scan told us that Izzy was going to be large. We were shown graphs that said her head size above the 97th percentile. She was projected to weigh well over 3.5kg.
She was in fact born at 2.9kg. Furthermore, she lost a bit too much weight after birth.
The weight situation has since stabilised. She is gaining weight at the rate you’d expect for a baby her size. But far from being a >97th percentile baby, our current graph shows her towards the bottom of a zone between two lines marked 2% and 0.2%.
She still has long limbs (particularly her legs), and her feet are also unusually long.
Nevertheless, at her six week check, the doctor described her as “perfect”. She really is small but perfectly formed.
I know everyone is hardwired to love their own baby. But I don’t think this is baby goggles. We ended up with a cute one!
Feeding as the father
Although the feeding challenges have been difficult, in a sense it’s been an amazing opportunity for me. I’ve been able to play a very active role in feeding her, which has been brilliant for bonding. With Alex spending so much of her time pumping, I’ve ended up doing the majority of the feeding, particularly in the first weeks of her life.
People think I’m mad, but I’m sure that Izzy and I are already communicating with each other well. She has hand signals and body positions that tell me certain things.
She lowers her hand repeatedly to tell me that she wants to sit up and be burped. When sitting up, she leans forward for a burp, and back for milk. She definitely recognises the word milk. A few times she has also pointed directly at her mouth shortly before being sick.
I’d already planned to try baby sign language with her from the age of 4 months onwards. But already I feel like we have our own little communication system.
The timing of Izzy’s birth was lucky for me. It meant that I could add on my paternity leave, and a bit of annual leave, onto the Christmas break. I had six and a half weeks at home with the family.
Alex was still recovering from her C-section, meaning she wasn’t physically able to do as much as she’d have liked. We swapped sides of the bed, so that the next-to-me crib was next to me. This put the onus on me to look after her overnight.
Of course, the earliest days were truly hectic as we adapted to our new life of getting up every couple of hours to feed her, change her nappy, and do whatever else needed done. It’s a cliche to say, but I’ve truly never known tiredness like it.
For the first three weeks, I didn’t even have the time to think about whether I was thinking about work. I’d never taken more than two weeks off work since I got my first “proper” job 11 years ago. I often struggle with time off work. I needn’t have worried. Parenting is now my real job.
My usual self-care routine went out of the window. I usually make sure I go for a walk every day. At first I didn’t have the time. Later I didn’t really want to. I haven’t been for a run or a cycle since Izzy’s birth. Short winter days don’t help. Enter the dad bod.
Having a newborn baby of course totally changes the nature of what you can do with your time. It’s not that we don’t have any spare time at all. But often we may be feeding, or simply holding her while she sleeps when she doesn’t want to be put down. So our hands aren’t free.
Suddenly, we find ourselves watching a lot more TV than before. We are recent converts to Taskmaster, and are working our way through the ten series. Izzy is also going to be an expert on 1980s Formula 1 because I have begun to watch extended highlights of every grand prix available on the F1 TV website, starting from 1981.
However, I absolutely do not have the time to do things that require my hands, such as reading books or writing blog posts. Things are quiet here just now, but I hope to begin posting more soon, as Izzy grows up and hopefully requires less constant attention.
Since those earliest weeks, we have been getting out more and more. Often with Izzy in the sling. This is the best item in the baby box.
Given the icy weather we’ve been having, at times this has felt quite treacherous.
On New Year’s Day we took a walk in a nearby park. But with my carrying Izzy in the sling, I didn’t want to slip and squash her. At one point I found myself trapped in the middle of a large patch of ice on a hill, feeling like a cat stuck up a tree. A passer-by had to help me across!
More recently, Alex has been making the most of the permitted ability to meet one other adult outdoors by meeting a variety of people from her maternal support networks — from the NCT antenatal classes, and the people who were on the postnatal ward with her — as well as our existing friends.
Lockdown might not enable us to give Izzy quite as social an upbringing as we’d like, but we’re still finding ways of getting her used to other people.
Back to work
I’ve now been back at work for three weeks. Like lockdown generally, I thought this current situation would be a mixed blessing. I thought having a newborn baby at home would be a distraction.
In fact, it is an amazing opportunity to be working from home as a new father, and for working from home not to be unusual. This gives me a great deal of flexibility.
Alex has now taken over the overnight shift. But now I get up at about 6:30am to give Izzy her early morning feed.
Once that’s finished, I’m able to work my hours flexibly between 8am and 6pm. I normally take a longish lunch, and go for a walk with Izzy.
It also means I can help out during the day if need be. It works brilliantly. I’ve found that 30 minutes cuddling Izzy is sometimes the perfect break from work, and I come back refreshed and still feeling productive.
My energy levels are generally good, and I’m getting better at typing while holding Izzy.
Header photo by Claire Fleck